Hollywood is falling, independent film hopes to take its place

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Daniel Avery grew up surrounded by stories. His mother encouraged him to read and write, and he soon fell in love with being a storyteller. Avery moved from creating movies in his backyard to attending a film- and television-production program at a local community college to taking contracted film jobs in Provo to creating his own films.

“Since I know both film and business, I’m going to do things on my own,” he said.

Avery is one of many people taking advantage of a culture that lends itself to independent filmmaking. Box office revenue was down in 2014, and studios blame the decline on several factors, including the increase of streaming services and big-budget television shows and a general lack of interest in the movies being released. Hollywood refuses to stray from the winning formula, which may mean that soon independent filmmakers will gain recognition for their ability to fill the entertainment gap with low-budget, unique and insightful movies.

According to Variety, 2014 saw a 5.2 percent drop in box office revenue, compared to 2013, despite the release of several comic book- and young adult book-based films. Although big budget, CGI franchises remain popular, a decline in ticket sales and a rise in popularity of more thought-provoking, non-corporate films show a definite shift in the entertainment industry. Since people no longer need to pay movie theater prices or leave the house to find quality entertainment, the time is ripe for a serious emergence of independent film.

The comfort of your own home

Home entertainment has been threatening movie theater revenue since VHS tapes became popular in the 1970s, but the creation of video-streaming websites and movies on demand make a trip to the movies seem not worth it.

Even studio-produced television shows are taking a hit, since it makes more sense to wait for the shows to come to Netflix or Hulu Plus rather than purchase an expensive cable package.

“It used to be that you could go online and get only esoteric things,” said Sharon Swenson, a professor of film and new media at Brigham Young University. “But now it’s so easy to go online and get the media you want that most people don’t go to the theater.”

Some film producers are deciding to remove the movie theater middleman altogether and are releasing their movies directly to the Internet. In 2014 Sony released its film “The Interview” simultaneously online and in a few independent movie theaters. The film could be rented or purchased through sites like Google Play and was available for streaming on Netflix by the end of January 2015. It became the company’s most lucrative online movie, earning more than $40 million in the first month.

Netflix and other websites have moved from being solely distributers of media to producing their own content, a wise move, according to Swenson.

“By producing original series, you can target a niche audience,” she said. “You save money, because the audience is already there and you don’t need to spend too much on marketing. You advertise on the banner at the top of your site, and people will click on it.”

The change in the distribution model means if studios want to continue to make money, they will need to adapt, according to Virginia Pearce, the president of the Utah Film Commission.

“Studios will have to find a way to operate in a more nimble society,” she said.

Taking advantage of new distribution methods

While studios struggle to alter their production model to fit the needs of modern consumers, filmmaking has become easier than ever for the layman.

“With the technology available today, anybody can make a movie,” Avery said. “The difficult part isn’t getting the equipment; it’s combining the business with art.”

Utah has long been a prime destination for filmmakers because of its diverse landscape and its film incentive program.

The Utah Film Commission encourages people who film in the state of Utah to apply for a post-production tax credit that allows them to receive a 20–25 percent rebate. Filmmakers must spend at least $200,000 to be eligible for the refund.

Utah is also the home to many independent filmmakers and film festivals, such as the Sundance Film Festival. Artists who wish to tell their own stories, rather than the stories Hollywood expects, come to Utah to exercise their creativity. Festivals work as a liaison between independent filmmakers and the major film industry. Indie storytellers get publicity, and studios get original movies.

The ability to tell a story without studio input is a huge draw for independent filmmakers, who consider filmmaking to be an unparalleled creative outlet.

“I love the idea of being able to create something out of nothing,” said Nick Ritter, a film student and founder of the ORCA grant-funded student group Six Weeks Cinema. “Films emulate dreams.”

According to Pearce, who worked for Sundance before taking the job at the Utah Film Commission, the rise of festivals brings people back to the theater. As easy as it is to stream a movie at home, some viewers still want a traditional movie theater experience. And some independent filmmakers are hesitant to put their movies online.

Working without a corporation to back the film has its own challenges, however.

“Indie movies are never going to get funding,” said JR Andrus, producer of the independent film Missed Connections. “In the indie world, the biggest worry is how it’s going to be paid for.”

 Avery readily admitted that his goal is not to get rich off of filmmaking. “I want to start my own film studio that will provide jobs and create films that inspire people. It’s not about making money.”

The future of film

Major studios, online distributors and independent filmmakers are all competing for the same audience.

“The film industry has never been so in flux,” Pearce said.

Studios must find ways to bring audiences back to the theater, which means they will probably continue to create big-budget action/fantasy films that look best on a big screen, according to Swenson.

“Film studios will continue to go really big,” Swenson said. “They’ll take more things like ‘The Avengers,’ that have a built-in fan base, and then put a lot of money into marketing, sequels and merchandise.”

Hollywood also needs to take advantage of the at-home market and can do so by continuing to create more nuanced programs.

“Hollywood now is TV,” Swenson said. “I would like to believe it doesn’t mean that people are less literate. In fact, (with shows like ‘Supernatural,’ ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Breaking Bad’) you have to be more active in understanding the meaning.”

The audience expectations of the film industry are changing, and studios, independent distributors and independent filmmakers will need to pay close attention in order to meet the needs of their viewers. An increase in the ease of film production will allow many more options for audiences, and producers can cater their media to niche audiences without worrying about gaining universal appeal.

“Content creators are exploding,” Pearce said. “It will be interesting to see where the industry goes.”

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